There are few cities as historic and breathtaking as Istanbul. And since it’s only a two-hour flight away, you might as well jet in for the weekend.
Set on the Bosphorus straits, Istanbul was once the center of learning and culture in the world. Today it represents the pull between east and west. And you’ll experience it all in just 48 hours.
When you arrive, you’ll have hundreds of hotel options. If you want to stay at the best of the best, even the Four Seasons has to bow to the Ciragan Palace (Ciragan Cad 84, 0212-258-3377), long considered Istanbul’s premier lodging. The hotel was once an Ottoman Palace. We need say no more.
If you want to stay nearer to the sites, consider the Arena Hotel (Ucler Hamam Sok 13-15, 0212-458-0364). It’s clean, spacious, and won’t break the bank.
Once you drop your bags, catch a taxi to the old city. You have several important sites to see your first day.
Once in the old city, go first to the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (also known as the Blue Dome Mosque). Built in the early 17th century, the mosque’s six minarets and plethora of domes make it a stunning site.
Go inside and see the intricate marble work, tiling, and paintings on the soaring domes. Take all the photos you can, inside and out, because the mosque is a defining feature of the Istanbul skyline.
Next, walk a few minutes across the old city to the Hagia Sophia, one of the most charming and enigmatic sites in the city.
Built in the sixth century, it’s a structure as impressive as many European historical sites many centuries its junior. The Hagia Sophia has traded identities several times, switching between church and mosque. The interior of the Hagia Sophia makes this dual identity evident. And the world famous dome is every bit as impressive as advertised.
In the midst of this busy day, grab a tasty Turkish shawerma as you keep walking.
Spend the second half of the day at Topkapi Palace – home for centuries of the Ottoman Sultans and the center of Ottoman rule. An entire afternoon spent at one site may seem like a lot, but the vastness of the palace and the depth of its history demands patience.
Visit the various courtyards, take in a concert from the historic Janissary military band, stop by the four exhibition rooms housing the Ottoman crown jewels. Most of all, you must swing by the harem where generations of Ottoman rulers were bred.
At the end of the day, take a breather at the hotel and get ready for dinner.
You’ll find no better pedestrian city than Istanbul, so it’s time to take advantage of the opportunity for a stroll.
Head to the Ortakoy neighborhood, down by the Bosphorus. It’s a vast series of winding lanes, harboring scores of delicious restaurants, cafes and bars. One good restaurant is Carne (0212-260-8425), serving great mezzas.
Carne also offers seafood, which, whether you decide to eat it at Carne or not, is a must. Whichever seafood place you choose, pick from a number of great fish mezza, like anchovies and mackerel. Don’t even bother moving on to the grilled fish main course. the mezzas are too good.
And before you leave Ortakoy for the night, make sure you slurp down a cup of authentic Turkish coffee.
The next morning, it’s time to take a departure from the old city. Head down to the base of the Galata bridge. There you’ll find a company called Turyol. They’re the best for a morning Bosphorus cruise. The boats leave frequent (at least every hour) and offer a great sun deck to take in the views.
The cruise will take you several miles up the Bosphorus towards the Balck Sea. On your way, you’ll pass under two impressive suspension bridges, cruise by massive tankers, and take in some of the luxurious mansions that line the waterway.
When you get back to Istanbul, ask for the Eminonu ferry. Locals will direct you nearby. Take the 10 minute boat ride across the Bosphorus to the Asian side of the city. Having come from Africa and spent your last day in Europe, you might as well take in your third continent. Cafes near the ferry stop will give you some good eats before you head back to Europe.
For the afternoon, it’s shopping time. Start near the ferry terminal and head into the spice market. Cruise the endless food stalls, caviar stands, Turkish delight stores, etc.
Once you’re done there, make your way to the world famous Grand Bazaar, a seemingly endless maze of stores selling leather carpets, jewelry, etc. No amount of print space can do this market justice, so pick up a guide book to help you navigate the labyrinth.
For dinner, it’s time for another walking district. Take a cab to Taksim Square, considered the center of Istanbul. Walk down the sprawling pedestrian avenue called Istiklal Street. All the high end shops are here.
About 10 minutes down on your right, you’ll see a small street running off Istiklal called Navizade (the name arches over the street so you can’t miss it). From here you’ll find yet another sprawling maze, but this one of food.
Take in dinner at any of the restaurants there and spend the rest of your night dropping by various neighborhood bars. You’ll feel like you’re partying with the entire population of the city.
But don’t party too late because it’ll be an early flight back to Cairo in the morning.